Bruges II is nearly here. David Cameron is poised to re-write the script of Britain’s relationship with Europe before an awe-struck public blinded by the radicalism of his vision. Or will he?
Put simply, what can Cameron say that he hasn’t already? The speech has been the subject of so many media interviews that he hasn’t left himself with much room for manoeuvre. He has already answered most of the big questions: he wants to stay in the EU and wants to maintain full access to the single market; he doesn’t want to be like Norway or Switzerland but he does want there to be a repatriation of powers from Brussels to national governments.
The contours therefore appear clear barring any dramatic u-turns (not unknown for the PM).The focus should logically fall on the details of repatriation. But even this isn’t entirely new because Tory politicians such as the Fresh Start Group are already fleshing out such plans. Expect attacks on EU employment, financial services and justice and home affairs legislation. If we’re really lucky, he’ll go for consumer protection and environmental protection too!
Cameron will be speaking largely to two audiences – the UKIP-leaning wing of his own party and other European leaders. His own MPs will not tolerate pro-European rhetoric akin to much of Thatcher’s original Bruges speech (think “we Europeans”) but nor will EU leaders take kindly to an admonishment from Cameron. And if he is serious about the strategy he outlines, Cameron will need the support of other EU leaders, support that, according to the Economist’s Charlemagne, is far from bountiful at the moment.
I suspect that he will not dwell on unilateral repatriation of powers. Instead, he would be wiser to concentrate on EU-wide repatriation to national governments, thereby ‘communitising’ his repatriation agenda and wistfully leaving the door open to other EU countries. This could satisfy Tory MPs that he is advancing their agenda while calming EU fears of yet more unilateral British opt-outs or red lines. However, it doesn’t explain what will happen if, as expected, the rest of Europe doesn’t play ball. Back to square one, unilateral repatriation.
Alternatively, Cameron could actually say something radical if he argues for wholesale restructuring of the EU through the formalisation of a two-track Europe, which would be an extension of the government’s current policy in support of further Eurozone integration. The federalist Andrew Duff MEP made headlines over Christmas by suggesting that the UK should become a second tier ‘associate member’ of the EU under which Britain would have a looser relationship, thereby allowing the rest of the EU to integrate whilst maintaining continued British access to the single market. This would of course enrage some EU leaders but Cameron may gamble that they would be calmed by finding a lasting solution to the ‘British problem’ which keeps the UK in the EU but circumvents its veto on further integration.
Thankfully, as pointed out by the New Statesman, it’s quite likely that Cameron will never get the chance to implement his policy because he’s stuck with the Lib Dems until 2015 and the odds are against a Tory majority at the next election. It is also unclear if an EU treaty change will happen at all and, if so, in what timeframe and the likelihood that the rest of the EU will dance to Britain’s tune in these negotiations is not high.
In that case, it’ll be over to Mr Milliband to finally say something substantive on the EU. A One Nation EU policy please!
 Presumably Cameron wouldn’t agree with Duff’s proposal that the UK would lose all its MEPs, Commissioner and Council voting rights under such a scenario.